Thursday, July 19, 2007

DJ details 'Paul Is Dead' rumor


"R. I. P. Paul!" So said the graffiti on the wall in the northeast stairwell on the campus of Bay de Noc Community College, where I was enrolled as a freshman in the fall of 1969.

The cryptic writing, in black marker, referred to Paul McCartney, founding member of the Beatles, rumored to be deceased. As a Beatles' fan, the scribbling caught my eye.

If you paid attention to hearsay at the time, McCartney had actually died years before and was replaced in the group by an impostor named William Campbell, winner of a look-alike contest.
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Russ Gibb

The "Paul Is Dead" rumor was first widely circulated during a broadcast on Detroit's WKNR- FM by famed disc jockey Russ Gibb on Oct. 12, 1969, shortly after the release of the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album.

During a phone-in segment, an Eastern Michigan University student named Tom Zarsky told Gibb that hints concerning McCartney's demise had been included in the band's albums since 1966. The caller suggested the DJ play the Beatles' "Revolution No. 9" backwards. When Gibb spun the disc counter clockwise, the phrase "Turn me on, dead man" emanated from radios all over southeastern Michigan.

Gibb also spun "Strawberry Fields Forever," which included a muffled voice at the end apparently saying "I buried Paul."

Listeners were shocked by what they heard.

Specifically, the rumor alleged McCartney had died in a car accident in 1966 as revealed in the lyrics to "A Day in the Life:" 'He blew his mind out in a car, he didn't notice the light had changed.'

Gossip spread quickly, especially on college campuses, as fans pored over their Beatles albums looking for more clues. The group's records were flying off the shelves.

At Michigan State University, audio professor Oscar Tosi even performed voice tests from known McCartney recordings and recent ones. His tests were inconclusive, as I recall.

The major media began to take notice of Gibb's radio revelations. By Oct. 21, the Chicago Sun-Times picked up on the story, while the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, followed with stories the next day.

Apple, the Beatles' business organization, denied the gossip and quoted McCartney as saying "I am alive and well and unconcerned about the rumors of my death." The company told reporters that McCartney was on a motoring tour somewhere in England with his family and refused to reveal his exact location.

Gibb also remembered Derek Taylor, the Beatles' press officer, making an especially lucid comment: "How do you prove you're alive other than being alive?"

Still, McCartney's explanation didn't quell the rumors. Even evidence like "Hey Jude" and "Get Back"--two recent examples of McCartney's musical prowess--weren't enough to convince some fans that he was still walking the earth.
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Finally, Life Magazine ordered London correspondent John Neary to get to the bottom of the matter. He waded through a bog to find McCartney and his family at their Scottish farm. Initially angry at having his privacy invaded, McCartney finally submitted to questions and pictures, calling the rumors of his death "bloody stupid."

The McCartneys appeared in a black and white photograph on the cover of the Nov. 7, 1969 issue under the headline "Paul is still with us."

McCartney may have been annoyed by the death rumor, but it didn't hurt his career. "Abbey Road" stayed at the top of the Billboard top pop albums chart for weeks and became the group's biggest selling album.

The "Paul Is Dead" rumor turned out to be an incredible promotional campaign, happening quite by accident, and costing the Beatles' record company nothing. Well, just a stamp.

The rumor didn't hurt disc jockey Russ Gibb, either. For his part in selling millions of Beatles albums, Gibb received a thank you note from the president of Capital Records.

A media personality in Dearborn, Gibb may be best best known for his role in the "Paul Is Dead" rumor, although he was also owner of the fabled Grande Ballroom and a well-known concert promoter.

Today, almost four decades after that infamous Sunday afternoon radio broadcast, Gibb continues to answer questions from the news media in such places as Brazil, Canada, Australia and Escanaba, Mich.

Self-effacing, Gibb sometimes refers to himself as "The Great Ghoul" in one of the most fascinating chapters in Beatles history.

While Life Magazine may have convinced most people of the "cute" Beatle's continued existence, it didn't end the intense interest many fans have searching for "Paul Is Dead" evidence. The Beatles have always denied the existence of any clues. Their fans, however, working like bloodhounds, have discovered hundreds over the years.

So, if you'll excuse me, I have to go home and play a few old Beatles records backwards.

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